6G: The Road To A Revolution? Or The Road To Perdition?

December 28, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

6GWorld is fortunate to have an Advisory Board with a wide variety of different perspectives and insights from around the world. Not long ago, we caught up with the Board to talk about critical issues and concerns.

We certainly didn’t expect the depth and variety of conversation sparked between the different members but here are some of the key ideas and themes, many of which you won’t often hear in public forums, which all add up to an existential problem for many key players in the telecoms industry. Food for thought as we head into a new year.

The conversations have been treated as under Chatham House Rules so individuals have not been quoted below.

Differentiating 6G From Legacy Networks

There was no lack of aspiration on display when it came to discussing what 6G can or should be.

While 4G and 5G are on a continuum in terms of capabilities and functions, aspirations for 6G will (or should) be entirely different. Governments in the European Union, United States and elsewhere have been including new levels of coverage as part of their aims for 6G, something which is not “a radio problem” but may well come down to business models and methods of delivery.

It is, however, a very reasonable societal demand when the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the difference in outcomes between digital haves and have-nots. As a result, 6G should be thought of as “a super-smart environment, not just another G”.

Arguably, we should start thinking of 6G not as a radio technology but as a smart platform for delivering the services requested, where and when they are requested. Whether those services are delivered over WiFi, 5G, ultra-fast THz, 4G, satellite, NB-IoT or wired broadband – or a mixture of them – should only depend on the nature of the service needed.

Today we are already starting to see services delivered across multiple channels and from multiple access types to create greater speeds and respond to the needs of a variety of services, and so there is a precedent to build from.

However, a “6G kind of coordination” demands radically different levels of orchestration, intelligence and autonomy not just in individual networks, but across different networks to manage successful service delivery and effective management. 

One important prediction: “6G is going to be less vendor-driven and more industry-driven”. We are seeing a greater ecosystem of vendors arising already, from the traditional telco NEPs to cloud players, AI specialists, data brokers and new entrants powered by the shift towards software and open systems. That should reduce the role and influence of any one vendor in the overall ecosystem.

At the same time, industrial organisations that started to gain a voice in 5G’s development, such as the 5G-ACIA, 5GAA, Industrie 4.0 and others, have more familiarity with how to influence the telecoms space and will start to gain a stronger voice – in parallel with the growth of 5G in enterprises. They are being actively courted in SNS-PPP. “In 5G, enterprises are going to come up with the use cases and provide lessons that bleed into 6G.”

Relating to the previous two points, 6G would be the first generation that is designed with security and privacy in mind from the start. It also faces stringent energy-reduction demands from political leaders, both per-bit and absolutely. These alone will set it apart from anything done before, meaning that an overall architecture needs to involve thinkers with very different skills from radio engineers.

Add to this that some services will need quality improvements beyond just speed and latency – for example, moving to deterministic and reliable data transit – and we can see the need for a very different set of stakeholders to develop 6G compared to previous generations.

Alongside the societal and business pressures shaping what 6G might be, we should consider the processes for building 6G. As was noted, people shaping 6G “really need to engage with the question ‘what do we do with the technology?’ as well as the technology itself.” As noted, industry and political figures have already set some clear directions relating to diversity and overcoming the digital divide as well as security and sustainability.

These are much more important “missions” given to 6G than 5G and create markets “ready to take off”. 5G is experiencing a revenue gap between 5G deployment and usage and yet “there’s so much out there that we need to do as societies and as companies.” We have a chance to build new markets based around these goals set by public bodies, but they need thinking about and structuring early so that propositions and ecosystems are market-ready when the technology is.  

On which note…

Technology

6G demands, as laid out by different players, include step-changes in existing metrics such as speed, latency and reliability as well as new metrics altogether. However, put them all together and these demands drive requirements from all parts of the tech stack.

If we’re to combine higher speeds and higher frequencies with lower power and better coverage, for example, we’ll need new materials, baseband processors and antennas; a pervasive “network of networks” and connected devices of all kinds demand new privacy and security approaches as well as rethinking service assurance; automation and orchestration demand fresh handling of the network itself.

6G is likely to be (perhaps must be?) built on a cloud-native, open architecture of distributed compute and storage nodes. This could lead to radically simplified networks, to the point where 5G, 6G and other services are essentially distributed applications alongside others.

Some might say “Well, it sounds like a 6G call would basically be Zoom.” There would be similarities, indeed.

Zoom uses IP addresses to share packets for a service, agnostic of the infrastructure, and that kind of simplicity takes a good deal of cost from the system while enabling much more flexibility. There would be more behind the scenes to meet the reliability and regulatory demands of a telephony service, but the simplification makes sense because it also enables edge capabilities right to the cell tower, effectively changing the telecoms network from a connection to the internet into part of the internet itself.

Of course, if telecoms services – and all that goes with them – can be delivered on a distributed internet-like infrastructure, then it proves that the unique capabilities of telecoms networks can also be extended to other digital services running as distributed applications, opening up new businesses provided the ability to build, provision and manage such applications is made simple.  

The evolution path for this scenario would require moving from open 5G to cloud-native 5G, then cloud-native 6G. This is a very different approach from most established NEPs, so it may be an opportunity for new entrants to take a significant role in a new generation… but also means that we could anticipate resistance to change from the major NEPs.

Simplification was also on the Board’s mind when talking about…

The Democratisation/Decentralisation of Networks

Assuming for a moment that Terahertz ends up being a significant component of future networks, the problems with signal attenuation would demand an antenna on every tree or pole outdoors.

Even if it doesn’t, we have been seeing significant annual growth in data demands which will create heavy burdens on infrastructure – 5G has already caused a drastic acceleration in fibre build-out, for example. “Operators today aren’t investing anywhere like enough on new sites to support that; even with current 5G they are mainly upgrading existing sites.”

One possible solution? “Simplicity to build and use is what drove the creation and adoption of the internet. If 6G is going to really scale, it needs to be simple to roll out and use.” In this situation, we can follow the example of Wi-Fi, enabling companies or individuals to set up their own end points.

Those who can recall the early days of 3G will remember the very real concern among telcos that Wi-Fi based data would deprive them of data revenues. Ultimately, the decentralised model for building Wi-Fi ended up coexisting with the centralised network builds of telecoms providers; perhaps it’s time to actively embrace that model.

Alongside the decentralization of access points, “DIY networks”, where communities or organisations effectively build their own infrastructure, might help to democratise network rollouts and, if some early examples are indicators, massively reduce the cost.

Helium is crowdsourcing IoT LoRaWAN base station installations in the USA; while in the UK, ‘B4RN’ have laid a fibre network in rural Yorkshire thanks in no small part to the active support and cable-laying of local landowners and volunteers. India’s “barefoot network engineers” have been building and maintaining rural networks for years now. Mini- or micro-datacentres are already popping up in cities and towns around the world, not least in telecoms exchanges.

Global backbone networks and subsea cables would still need to be done professionally, but many parts of access networks could potentially be “amateur” affairs put in place by local councils, community groups, down to in-home 6G access points installed like Wi-Fi nodes. However,

  • This would require a good deal of harmonisation, spectrum management and optimisation of the network, which would potentially define the telco’s role in this very different environment.
  • The hardware for access points of different sizes would need to be simple to install and maintain. There is precedent, mainly from emerging markets where companies like Vanu Inc have been designing and building equipment for off-grid communities; and, again, from the Wi-Fi community.
  • Regulation would need to align with this model. In South Africa, for example, anyone installing network infrastructure has to make it available to rival carriers. This reduces the impetus for individual operators to deploy infrastructure, but also reduces the amount of network duplication. We have already seen moves towards increased passive network sharing and neutral hosting in many countries, so taking some extra steps to simplify and accelerate the process of deployment would not be unthinkable.

The Open Grid Alliance is working to enable a distributed approach to compute and storage resource management which would tie in neatly with this decentralised, software-based approach. As an added benefit, it would also help to maximise the use of the access network, which currently sits at about 40%-50% utilisation in many countries to cover peak demand.

What Does This Mean for the Telco?

Competition in the past has been largely network-based – who would provide the best coverage, the best speeds, the best quality of service – and price-based. However, a future where much of the network infrastructure is common across providers will give “carriers” very different roles to fulfil.

Perhaps the telcos will act as the “public face” of 6G, providing customer support as they do for Wi-Fi today, or perhaps they will act as the orchestrators/coordinators/guarantors of services running over a network of networks.

In these cases, competition between providers will be based on their skills in service management and assurance, backed up by visibility into a network of networks not fully under their control. The software and algorithms they run to manage their clients’ services, and their ability to respond to questions and problems, will be what sets different service providers apart.  

Meanwhile companies such as KPN and Deutsche Telekom, for example, are already looking into roles as hubs for sharing, trading and managing data from different sources in a way that is secure and respects regulation. In an environment of, for example, increasing AI requiring training data, this is likely to be an important new kind of market.

There is no guarantee that the existing “telcos” need to be the ones fulfilling either role, however.

One major strength of telcos is their capital – the ability to deploy networks over large territories and user bases, which may play well into consumer markets where they have strong brand recognition. However, there are an increasing number of niche markets like IoT where new entrants could easily take a hold.

Moreover, while telecoms players have previously had strengths in areas that other types of company didn’t – for example, in network management – the required skill set is changing fast. For example, skills in, and understanding of, cloud-native systems are very rare in telco; and while security is not a new concern in telecoms, the types of approach to security will need to be drastically different and is terra incognita for most telecoms providers. Identifying where individual telcos want to play in a new environment, and then bringing together the skills needed to deliver on that, will be a whole new form of competition in itself.

As one of the Advisory Board put it, “what will service providers look like in 2030? Is Netflix a service provider? Is Google, who owns subsea cables? Who will Nokia be selling to?”

As mentioned earlier in this article, the aspirations for 6G are not small, and many of the ideas and predictions here – while speculative – are rooted in existing trends and capabilities. 6GWorld is incredibly grateful for having such a diverse suite of intelligent and interesting people to talk with, but what do you make of these ideas and what are we missing? Come join the conversation.

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